Wednesday, August 16, 2017

My Obsession with Free Knowledge

I have a peculiar attachment with free knowledge - the concept that knowledge should be free of conditions and unencumbered by geographical, economic, cultural, and any other avoidable barriers. This often puts me in a position where I strangely reject certain well meant advices simultaneously appearing stupid and arrogant to others.

For example, a good friend and fellow citizen once suggested to me that I join Landmark Forum, a 3 day course that helps people understand their hidden biases and become more productive people. I listened to their forum leader speaking about how the course works and the psychology behind it and I was sure it would be a fantastic idea. But, when it came to registering for the course and participate, something prevented me from doing it.

The other day I asked a pharmacologist friend if she knew any prophylactic treatment for syphilis. She went to UpToDate (or I'm not sure if it was some other similar service) and started looking up the information. I was curious what she was using and whether I could have it in my phone too. She said it would need a subscription, but she was willing to share her username and password with me. I said that I didn't want access to it.

Yesterday a close friend suggested Dr Thameem Saif's lecture series on basic concepts in medicine for me. She said that it was really good and helps to grasp basic concepts really fast, saving a lot of time. I agreed with her on all that and said I wouldn't attend the lecture series.

Additionally, I hate the concepts of entrance coaching, tuition, etc.

The pattern I see emerging is that I have constant disregard for knowledge that is held behind restrictions, especially if tied with a business. I don't consider making a business out of knowledge evil. But I hold a pet peeve against using that kind of knowledge for my personal benefit.

To understand this attitude, you need to look at the other things that I value and principles that I care for.

Free software

Free as in free speech, not free coffee. Here is an interesting paragraph from gnu.org about free software:
The idea of the Free Software Movement is that computer users deserve the freedom to form a community. You should have the freedom to help yourself, by changing the source code to do whatever you need to do. And the freedom to help your neighbor, by redistributing copies of programs to other people. Also the freedom to help build your community, by publishing improved versions so that other people can use them.
I have been an ardent user and advocate of free software for the past 8 or so years. The idea that there is collective ownership of software and people being able to make and share improvements on the software with each other thus creating a better product for everyone is addictive. So much that once you subscribe to this philosophy you feel grudge and guilt if you were to use or be forced to use non-free software for any task.

I can still use Microsoft Word on my parents' computer running Microsoft Windows to type a letter. But it simply won't feel right.

Open Web

The Open Web is that part of the world wide web which is open for anyone to use, create, and innovate in irrespective of their location, race, gender, economic status, etc. according to me.

Internet has enabled human dreams far quicker than any other invention. Internet is a great equalizing force. Internet has elevated human life to a higher level. And Open Web is the most important pillar of this success.

With the Open Web, it is far more easy and quick for people anywhere on earth to share and receive knowledge. Collaboration is cakewalk. Building upon each other's ideas becomes rule rather than exception. Charles Darwin and Gregor Mendel worked on two critical pieces of the theory of evolution at around the same time. But they never knew about each other's work. Won't ever happen in the internet age.

When I see internet services that are "app-only" or requires sign in for viewing, I wince. They are justified in trying to retain users. But it simply won't feel right for me to use such a service.

Open Access

With internet, the cost of publishing came to almost zero. And so one would think that science literature would become cheaper and cheaper to access. But the opposite is the truth. Scholars expend their lives trying to expand the horizons of science and publishing industry locks down their contributions to select few who are willing to pay exorbitant amounts of money to access this.

People who fight these are killed. But their spirit cannot be killed. Open Access movement is gaining large amount of followers. When enough academicians hold fast to the promise that they won't publish in money-thirsty journals, there will be a tilt in the way scientific literature is published.

Science needs to be set free. And open access to scientific articles is crucial here.

I've not published anything yet. But when I do, it will be open access. And I keep asking the people I have any influence over, to keep their contributions to the knowledge base that humans have built to be open access.

Free Knowledge

It is in this backdrop that free knowledge enters.

Organizations like Wikimedia, Creative Commons, and even YouTube have done a lot to advance free knowledge. "Imagine a world in which every single person on the planet is given free access to the sum of all human knowledge."

If you have been reading carefully till now, you know that free culture is my culture. And free knowledge is an inalienable part of free culture.

From as early as 11th standard, I have been using the internet and all the wonderful resources in it to learn. I fell in love with MIT's OpenCourseWare. When NCERT textbooks weren't enough I would run to OERs like CK-12.

But when I joined MBBS I faced the greatest challenge ever. To date I have not been able to find any good collaborative (or not) open textbook online for medicine or any subject that medical education includes. There have been very good attempts like Ophtho book, Path Bites, Radiopaedia.org, etc. But the information is usually so scattered that it is very difficult to get a comprehensive understanding of the subjects.

In this scenario, I was forced to resort to traditional textbooks. I made it a point not to purchase expensive textbooks. I've scraped all the corners of the internet to find out useful PDF files.

And at the same time I made a pledge to myself that I will leave the condition a bit better by organizing the information that I find and making it possible for a future student to click on links and get access to various information as required. That is why learnlearn.in was born.

Now that I have finished MBBS I no longer am under duress to stick to textbooks to avoid prolonged stay at a not-so-nice place. But, in the spirit of pirate philosophy, I continue to access resources that are required even when they're not free knowledge. But I have set a personal restriction that I will not be using resources that aren't obtainable from the internet.

By doing this I am expecting to create a path which can be followed by others. I want success, but I want only reproducible success. I don't want to be successful because I had access to a particular resource by virtue of my geographical, economic, cultural, or any other privileged position.

So what about things I learn at VMH? Well, my plan here is to put everything that I learn here online. Also, a point to note is that at VMH there's no package of knowledge that is sold. It's all experiential learning that occurs here. And people are welcome to work and learn from here.

Can't you do the same with Forum, UpToDate, and Dr Thameem? Well, not impossible. But, like I said earlier about using Windows as a free software advocate, it just doesn't feel right.

But more importantly, by striving to learn exclusively from free knowledge resources, I create a demand for free knowledge thereby encouraging creators to produce more content in free domain and also allowing people who come after me to have a road that's been taken before them.

Let's build a society where knowledge is free.


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1 comment :

  1. :) Will keep an eye open for all sources of free knowledge and update you if I come across any. good read

    ReplyDelete

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